Delirium 27 works with a tantalizing vision. Lights glower, rhythms pulsate in the sound design as the four actors group and break compulsively. Projections spill on several screens: actors’ tightly shot mugs, urban overheads, then a solar radiance on the back wall that’s as entrancing as Olafur Eliasson’s twilight sun at the Tate.
But then a sliding gate shuts on that radiance, obliterating all but a surveillance slot. This is a universe of inputs, as hermetic as you dare. As the first character on the set announces: “I live alone, entirely alone.” Played by Matija Vastl for Delirium’s 2008 premier in Ljubljana, Slovenia, he may mean more than he says, considering who he’s saying it to. Fade to black.
The story unfolds in quick-cut scene sequencing. Ode Black, our anti-hero, is joined by a pair of good cop, bad cop interrogators. A solemn woman rolls over a tabletop into his lap, then contact-improv gets the seduction to the floorboards and…another fade to black. Delirium’s lovers may seem diffident, asking one another “Do you need attention?”—but we’ll get back to love as a particular WaxFactory theme.
Delirium was written by its director, Erika Latta. It runs this month at Abrons Art Center, and concludes WaxFactory: Year 11, the company’s intriguing first-decade retro. Latta, a founding member, acted in the other two pieces: Blind.ness, premiered at PS122 last year, and Quartet v4.0, WaxFactory’s tech-savvy, widely toured version of the Heiner Müller play, reinvisioned in late February by company co-founder Ivan Talijancic.
The hour-long Delirium exposes memory in a murder investigation, and in sleep deprivation, perhaps its most vulnerable terrain. The lead interrogator—the Boss—says he’ll close his eyes as the recall is better. “It’s said that a man could go mad if he couldn’t dream at night,” one detective notes, and wake-ups in the deep hours roil both action and voice-over, with Black at 3:21 in the morning “checking to make sure you didn’t die in your sleep.” Where the perils in Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis migrate in a text of malleable edges, Delirium stays en pointe. The lady in question, apparently murdered, is recalled “sleeping peacefully, oblivious to the danger that was all around her.”
Repartee is blast-pocked with stilted tough-guy lingo (“If you don’t cooperate there’ll be hell to pay”). Corroded poetics get their moments, too. Asked where he was on July 2, Black says “Who knows? I was probably smashed, whistling Dixie by some forlorn train tracks.” The clipped scenes keep the pace limber. Suave motion aesthetics lead from mannered dance to B-flick antics. Black cracks wise, having picked up a bit of useless information as the Boss upbraided his underling: “Clive,” he badgers his badgerer, “your name is Clive?” Memory aids utilized to retain a numeral sequence include mom’s raven hair, Joyce’s story “The Dead,” and reefer. In Delirium’s suspiciously contained space, stage details are emphatic, from the Boss’s thumb patterns as he waits, to a dull overhead bulb that draws Black’s muddled attention as least as well as his questionable stage mates.
At Abrons’s exquisite, balconied Harry De Jur Playhouse, the elaborate set for WaxFactory’s Quartet was being loaded in, and Latta and the actor Todd Peters were polishing off a February rehearsal. The enormous scrim cube thrust five rows out over cushy seats, as anachronistic in the charming theater as IM Pei’s pyramid looks dropped into the Louvre. The set was “still growing,” the director Talijancic said, and sheet plastic drooped on the cube’s rear faces: a time capsule beset in the doldrums. Cables and electric boxes dangled like tentacles from the set’s translucent floor. For light tests, pools of radiance bled at the corners and center stage, then tall neon tubes on the cube’s corner poles hit like an unrelenting Dan Flavin frieze.
Latta and Talijancic were set to talk about Delirium and WaxFactory’s festival, then Quartet’s costumes arrived for a fitting. Street duds got dropped in the carpeted aisle, the actors stepping into still-sleeveless black latex jumpsuits. Latta went prostrate onstage, doing flexercises she’d use as the Marquise de Merteuil. The costume designer, Haans Nicholas Mott, decided the only issue would be fitting more Spandex in the crotch. Talijancic, for his version of the play, confines his actors in the cube, on coiled feeder cables: Solaris meets Texas death match wrestling. It’s “the museum of our loves” for the Marquise and Valmont. Portentous soundscapes gush and grind like the fast track to fluid oblivion. Cameras grab and alter stage action onto screens. There’s backward walking, as there is in Delirium, and lighting cuts to usher the sequence of scenes. Then comes Valmont’s chilling line to his belle dame, “It hasn’t rained on you in a long time,” and that pearl of rationality: “I’m not familiar with the geography of heaven.”
At a coffee shop on Grand Street, Latta spoke of generating her Delirium during a Germany writing residency in 2006. “I wanted to do a piece about memory and about loss,” she said. Extensive reading included “this book about the destruction of memory through war, which said you can destroy buildings, but they’re still in the memory of people.” She sourced Paul Auster on his father dying, Diane Ackerman, and a New York Times piece about people in a roof collapse which she subsequently heard in a Chuck Mee play. “I made a ten-minute version, inviting designers and architects from Slovenia to collaborate. Then I don’t know what happened, I was on this bus—the residency was up on the castle on a hill—and this image came of this man with these two detectives. The whole first scene: ‘Where were you on the night of July 2?’ ‘I was on my way to see a woman.’ ‘What was her name?’ It just came out, and I said OK….”
Door to her room shut, Latta wrote, sorting the elements of what she termed “the outside world versus the inner world of somebody.” She mentioned to another resident writer, before writing the murder scene, that she planned to do internet research for it. “He said, ‘Just imagine it.’ I said, ‘Oh, god….’” Added texture comes from Ackerman texts, which were projected for the Ljubljana production. “Sometimes when you read things, you take them in differently,” said Latta. “Some lines the characters want to say but don’t. Some are clichéd, like ‘I love you.’ You’re not supposed to use the word ‘love’ when you’re writing, apparently.” “That’s funny,” Talijancic said, “when Simona [Seminic, the Slovenian playwright] and I were first thinking about Blind.ness, we said ‘But never mention the word love.’” WaxFactory productions may have a through line on the topic, writ in invisible ink. One fight sequence in Delirium devolves to patsy slapping; another’s interrupted by the Boss, who hollers, “What are you, in love?”
“In my work as an actor and a director,” Latta said, “I’m always interested in this landscape of the mind.” Hers is not a psychological fascination, “but what it looks like, how it relates to the tactile world.” She peppered her text with allusions no one may get, such as Black’s 73-year-old neighbor in Apt. 9, Mrs. Hamsun, who’s the namesake of Nobel laureate Knut and an homage to his novel, Hunger. “She’s also a neighbor I had in a building in Little Italy,” Latta added. “It was Mafia-owned, you had to pay in cash. She’d sit in the doorway with all the lights and fans on: ‘It’s hot! How about a lemonade?’”
Once Quartet wraps, Latta will head overseas to cast Delirium in Slovenia, where its three-day run in 2008 had been co-produced by the company KD Integrali.
“We’re working a lot in Europe,” she said of WaxFactory. “We’ve been a company for eleven years, but people here ask ‘What are you doing?’ Our big mission is to work internationally, to have this exchange between artists and to see what they’re working on.” She and Talijancic chuckled a phrase almost in unison: Ambassadors for culture. “We’ve collaborated in Slovenia, Croatia, France,” Latta said. “We’ve toured to Lisbon, Italy, London, Venezuala. This language of theater: everybody knows the problems of how to enter and how to exit. They have similar questions that they’re asking as artists.”
Quartet was part of Performing Revolution, the ongoing festival about performance arts in Central and East Europe. The Trust for Mutual Understanding provides major support for Performing Revolution, and for WaxFactory. “Ivan and Erika are artistic diplomats,” wrote Carrie Thompson of TMU in an email. “TMU has awarded WaxFactory grants over the past decade to support exchanges with artists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. Their multidisciplinary, collaborative approach dovetails perfectly with TMU’s mission encouraging communication and understanding through international exchange in the arts.”
WaxFactory also works in film, including a forty-five minute piece based on the artist Sophie Calle, and acknowledge the medium’s vast influence. The joy of theater, however, is paramount. Latta termed it the “visceral nature, the dialogue of the body. That’s the main thing, sustaining the energy for the entire hour or hour and half. It takes a different kind of muscle, though with the same concern: How do you express a story?” Talijancic used an orchestral metaphor for the company’s means, saying that “the different movements or tracks are equally important: stage design, lighting, sound, video. Sometimes the way you light a scene is telling more of the story than the words.” He and Latta display directorial yens for displacement. About a discordant chocolate-mousse moment in Delirium, Latta felt the characters “needed a break.” She then noted the movement section that follows, nicked from a Chaplin film. “We like to interrupt our own pieces,” she admitted. “With something that apparently doesn’t fit,” Talijancic interjected. “But somehow it does,” Latta continued. “In Quartet we interrupt with this Missy Elliot piece.” The Marquise and Valmont flaunt club moves to the brash beats, “then we go back” and the haughty rigor resumes. “And you come back,” Talijancic said of the jolted audience and its potential for reinvigoration. “You go ‘What was that? And what is this?’”
“We always want to leave something for the audience,” Latta said. “We always want them to ask questions. This is super important to me as a director, and to me as an actor: Don’t give them everything in the performance. You hope the audience will walk away with something that will come to them tomorrow. Or come into their dreams, or their work when they get a vision, or that they’ll think about five years from now.”
WaxFactory’s Delirium 27 runs March 24–28 at the Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), NYC. For tickets ($15) and more info, visit henrystreet.org/arts, and check performingrevolution.org.